American painters in 1930 had seen modern art, but they weren’t sure how it was made.
That changed when they started taking lessons from Hans Hofmann, who made his first trip to the United States that year at the age of 50, before eventually settling here to escape the Nazis.
Hofmann had painted in Paris from 1904 to 1914 with modern masters such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and he opened an art school in Munich when World War I began.
He started schools again in New York in 1934, and shortly thereafter in Provincetown in the summers, where his lessons had a profound influence on a generation of American artists.
“He was the conduit between the European avant-garde and Americans in his principles, and how he taught,” said Lydia Gordon, a curator at Peabody Essex Museum, where the exhibit “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction” recently opened.
His students, who included the likes of Lee Krasner, Larry Rivers and Helen Frankenthaler, weren’t always sure what Hofmann was talking about in his thick German accent.
But they were riveted by the things he did in class, which included tearing up students’ canvases and rearranging them on the spot, Gordon said.
“They got it because he was so demonstrative,” she said. “He was all about liberating students from thinking painting had to be a window out on the world.”
Following his example, they set aside the tricks of perspective, which reproduce the world as it already appears, and instead used color and abstract form to create “paintings that have their own reality, something bigger than us,” Gordon said.
While “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction” addresses these aspects of Hofmann’s career, the show has lessons of its own to impart.
“I think the dominant narrative has been him as a teacher and him as grandfather of abstract expressionism,” Gordon said. “There’s so much more.”
As the show’s title suggests, while Hofmann explored the nature of abstraction in his techniques, his paintings were also inspired by nature throughout his career.
“These ideas don’t come from nothing, they come from the physical world,” Gordon said. “Hofmann’s lifelong goal was to translate the visual and spiritual essence of nature. He’s not working outside and looking at a building and mimicking a building on the picture plane, but he is after this spiritual dimension. He is after the approximation of tone, he’s after the directional forces of nature and how to abstract those through line, shape, push and pull.”
What makes this interesting for local audiences is that Hofmann, who was limited to drawing for several years after moving to America, started painting again in the summers of 1933 and 1934, when he was teaching in Gloucester.
Gordon, who will give a talk this weekend at Cape Ann Museum about Hofmann’s Gloucester connection, said that although he had spent a decade working beside avant-garde artists, he was initially trained as a genre painter.
“The practice of landscape and still life and even the figure never quite leave Hofmann’s painting, so when he started to paint again, he returns to his roots,” she said. “You can see how these conventional ways of painting become the basis of his innovative abstraction.”
The exhibit makes the connection between representational and abstract elements in Hofmann’s work by pairing paintings from early and late in his career.
That allows visitors to ponder the affinities between the color and composition of “Landscape No. 83” from 1935 and the abstract features in “Such is the Way to the Stars (Sic Itur Ad Astra)” from 1962.
Viewers can also consider how Hofmann got from “Untitled (Interior Composition),” a studio interior from 1935, to the rectangles of solid color against an orange background in “Sanctum Sanctorum (Holy of Holies—Holy Place)” from 1962.
“We paired early landscapes with abstractions that are still working off the essence of a landscape,” Gordon said. “It’s important to see those connections, (how he) takes the tools he’s using in early work, and how they’re morphed or expanded in later works, so by the time we get to fully abstract work, we have a set of questions, we can sit with them, to make abstract art accessible.”
In research that Gordon will discuss in her talk, she found that there were also some telling contrasts between the work that Hofmann and a “cohort of modern artists” did in Gloucester and that of other painters on Cape Ann at the time.
“I was really interested in the relationship between these modern artists and the ways in which they’re working perhaps more abstractly, and the landscape and the realism that was in the artist colony in Cape Ann,” she said.
In his two summers there, Hofmann had a “huge impact” on art education in this region that can still be felt today, Gordon said.
That is evident from the fact that two of his students, Paul Scott and Oliver Balf, were two of the founding faculty members at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly.
“We should be proud of where we are in the legacy of modern art, and I want to build up that pride of place,” Gordon said.
If you go
What: “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction”
When: Through Jan. 5. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem
How much: $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, $12 for students, and free for youths 16 and under and Salem residents
More information: 978-745-9500 or www.pem.org
What: “Pride of Place: Hans Hofmann in New England”
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: Cape Ann Museum, 27 Pleasant St., Gloucester
How much: $20, with reservations required at https://bit.ly/2VKuZ5A
More information: 978-283-0455, ext. 10, or www.capeannmuseum.org